Conditioning, strength training paying dividends in Liberty Hill’s late-season playoff run

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By Lance Catchings

As the 12-1 Liberty Hill football team prepares for their Friday bout with Carthage in the State Semifinal playoff round, it is of no doubt to anyone that is has been a long season.

Football is a taxing game on the body, and often in late postseason runs, it is the teams that are stronger and more conditioned that find themselves in the win column. Head Coach Jeff Walker believes that part of the success for his team has come from the way his program attacks strength and conditioning before and during the season.

“There is no doubt about it that conditioning is a factor later in the season,” Walker said. “We typically lift Monday, Tuesday and Saturday during the season. We do that to try and maintain our strength we’ve built. From August to whenever we finish in the playoffs, we try to maintain lifting three times a week, if not all five days. It is important not only for conditioning, but for helping to prevent injuries, too. It is extremely important to what we do and how we play. I would say it is probably our number one priority when it comes to getting our young men ready for the season. We probably don’t run as much as some other programs, but we’re in the weight room quite a bit.”

Without the ability to host padded practices due to UIL regulations, football is a sport that is impossible to recreate in the offseason. Unlike sports such as volleyball, tennis and basketball, football games can only be played in-season. To counter that, a football player’s best friend becomes the weight room. It is the place players can go to physically and mentally prepare themselves for the long, strenuous season ahead. Walker, his staff and his players love the grind of the weight room.

“Unfortunately for the kids, my goal everyday is to get them out of their comfort zone lifting weights,” Walker said. “You cannot go in the weight room and go through the motions. You must go in there, put on some good weight and get to work. One of my pet peeves is that throughout the year, we have a 45-minute period, and I believe we should be moving weights for 45 minutes. We shouldn’t be talking, looking at charts, but getting the weights in your hands and on your backs and move it the whole period. There is no doubt that we train our kids to lift at the pace we want to play football at. That is the only way I know how to simulate playing the game.”

Facing halftime deficits against Sealy in the Regional Final and La Vernia in the State Quarterfinal, the Panthers then outmuscled, out-blocked and outran both teams for the wins. In the second half of both games, it was no secret that the opposing teams were winded as Liberty Hill wore them down.

“I would like to think that our strength program has a lot to do with our performance in those games,” Walker said. “It is something we have always done and has seemed to work for us. I am not as big on a one-rep max as some coaches, because you don’t play football for one play. I am more interested in repetitions. I would rather see a kid bench 225 pounds 100 times as opposed to a kid lifting 400 pounds for one rep. We want to be strong from the first snap in the first quarter to the last snap of the game.”

While some programs lighten up on the weight regimen during the season to give their players more recovery time, Walker believes remaining consistent with weights can help keep his players healthy.

“The mental aspect is just as huge for us as we lift weights throughout the season,” he said. “You get in the squat rack and you go until you don’t think you can go any more, then I come over and make you go a little more and a little more. That is the reason we do what we do. We play for 48 minutes and our athletic period is 45 minutes, so we try to duplicate that in our offseason. We don’t hit much in practice. We limit how many times we could go out and have a chance to get injured in practice. Lifting keeps us from losing the muscle mass throughout the season.”

Dating back to last season and heading into their matchup against Carthage Friday, Liberty Hill has played 28 games in two years. With most high schools playing a regular season of nine or 10 games, the Panthers have played the equivalent of three seasons during that span with the addition of deep playoff runs.

“When you play as much as we have the past two years, you must be conditioned for that,” Walker said. “We were in week 14 last year, and this year, we’re coming up on week 15. We have almost played three full regular seasons in two years. When you do that, you will obviously have some wear and tear. Hopefully, if you are putting in the time and energy in the weight room, you can bounce back quick because you are stronger and more physically fit. Kids that did not spend that time in the weight room will show on the football field. There is no doubt when you play as long as we do that it takes a toll on the body. You must recover, as well. We tell our kids, ‘Go when it’s time to go, and rest when it’s time to rest,’ because rest is just as important.”

The Panthers have had great offseason and in-season strength and conditioning program success since Walker has been head coach, but he believes Carthage will be just as prepared when they face off in the State Semifinal. When it comes to getting his players to take strength and conditioning serious, he said it is not a hard sell.

“Success breeds success, and that is why Carthage is where they are at and they have been doing it for a long time now,” he said. “You want to see your hard work pay off. When we can tell the kids to do what we ask them to do to the best of their ability, there is no doubt it makes the season better. That can make it more enjoyable when it gets hard, because they know that there is a payoff. We preach that they will get out what they put into it. If they are not putting much into it, then you won’t have the success we’ve had. I feel like the weight room has been the secret to the success we’ve had over the years. Many teams don’t lift the way we do, and we feel like that’s an advantage for us.”

The Panthers will put their strength and conditioning to the test against the back-to-back State Champions Friday night in Cypress as they vie for a State Championship berth.

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